Reflections on the Old Testament: Ezekiel
“Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the LORD God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’” Ezek. 33:11; “When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die,” Ezek. 33:13, NKJV.
Wickedness is the natural state of the human spirit, manifested by the activity of body and mind. It is in this state that we are first placed before the perfect, sinless God, who accordingly pronounces upon us the awful judgment: “O wicked man, you shall surely die!” Nevertheless, God does not intend to completely annihilate His creation. Having originally created only good things, although that creation fell (a discussion for another time), He, being almighty as well as all-good, is able to redeem it. And this He does by imparting His own goodness to us—viz., through the victory of the cross, bestowing His Holy Spirit upon us, thus placing us in a spiritual state of righteousness, which is (or ought to be) manifested by the activity of body and mind.
Ezekiel 33:12-13 states the following: “Therefore you, O son of man, say to the children of your people: ‘The righteousness of the righteous man shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression; as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness; nor shall the righteous be able to live because of his righteousness in the day that he sins.’ When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, nonce of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die.”
First of all, according to the teaching of the New Testament, we know that the gift of the Holy Spirit cannot be revoked, regardless of the failing of the flesh. For mind and body are but passing shadows, and their activity will not be remembered. Rather, it is the spirit, which instigates that activity, that we ought to be concerned about. Again, the natural spirit of man is wicked, thus, his natural actions are also wicked. But God promises not to impute that sin against him if he turns from his wickedness, i.e., if he humbles himself before God, that he may receive the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, God says: “When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die.” To begin with, examine the phrase: “but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity.” To commit iniquity is obviously a failure of the flesh, but to trust in one’s own righteousness is to believe that one’s natural spirit is righteous of itself, which is not merely a failure of the flesh but a denunciation of the Holy Spirit—in short, a rejection of God. A man may be righteous in works, indeed, blameless according to the law, but unless he recognizes God as the only source of righteousness and his own spirit as wicked, he will fall, and will surely die. Therefore, when God says: “When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live…” we can only assume, based on the irrevocability of salvation, that He is speaking to the morally righteous man, or else, “the man who is righteous in his own eyes,” who recognizes virtuous activity, but does not possess the spiritual righteousness given by the Holy Spirit. To this man, the LORD presents the following: 1) the reality that his spirit is naturally wicked, and 2) the offer of spiritual salvation.
If he recognizes the truth and submits himself to God, he shall surely live. But if he trusts in his own righteousness, he will inevitably commit iniquity and die. His “righteous works” will not be remembered. Ezekiel 33:12-13 simply indicates that morality does not save, for it is but virtuous actions of body and mind, which will pass away, while the spirit remains in wickedness. Rather than striving for moral perfection, which man can never attain, we ought to recognize our wickedness, humble ourselves before God, and thus receive the Holy Spirit and live. Having established this, the LORD goes on to repeatedly promise the bestowal of the Holy Spirit and describe, allegorically, the transaction of redemption:
“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you will keep My judgments and do them…And I will multiply the fruit of your trees and the increase of your fields, so that you need never again bear the reproach of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations,” Ezek. 36:25-27, 30-31, NKJV.
“Thus says the Lord God: ‘On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will also enable you to dwell in the cities, and the ruins shall be rebuilt. The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass by. So they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.” Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the LORD, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the LORD, have spoken it, and I will do it,’” Ezek. 36:33-36, NKJV.
“’I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it,’ says the LORD,” Ezek. 37:14, NKJV.“’And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I will have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord God,” Ezek. 39:29, NKJV.
“’Not for your sake do I do this,’ says the Lord God, ‘let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel!’” Ezek. 36:32, NKJV.
Amidst the lengthy passages in which God speaks of redeeming and cleansing His people, just when we are beginning to feel quite special, He inserts this verse. What does He mean—He does not do it for our sake? What other motive could He possibly have for sacrificing His own Son?
To begin with, after saying “Not for your sake do I do this,” the LORD says: “Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways.” The implication here is that God was not merciful to His people because He saw anything worth saving in them—indeed, we know that in our natural state of wickedness, we are completely alienated from God, and in us “dwells no good thing.” “There is none who does good.”Rather, God loved His creation—the creation that He pronounced good—and would redeem it for His namesake. Salvation is the gift of God, and is by no means earned. We are not redeemed because of anything praiseworthy in us. Our righteousness is as filthy rags in God’s sight, and He reminds us of this, that we may be humble: “Not for your sake do I do this…Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways!”